‘Mark, surely being loved is important?’
Only for our first twenty years.
For the first two weeks of its life a baby needs three things:
1. Love. Studies show that a human baby needs love to develop physically, mentally and emotionally. That love can be expressed in a variety of ways. (Touching is one important way. Again, see Ashley Montague’s book, ‘Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin’.)
Without love a baby can even die. Evolution has ‘wired’ a mother to feel love for her baby and to express that love, and the baby has evolved to receive and absorb that love; it is ‘wired’ to feel loveable.
2. Its mother’s milk, and,
3. colostrum (a fluid in the mother’s milk containing antibodies to protect the baby from disease, and providing other health benefits).
For about two years the baby needs:
1. its mother’s love, (though a father, or guardian, can provide it too). That feeling of being loveable is essential for the baby’s health, and for it to become a well-adjusted adult.
2. Its mother’s milk. (source: The Australian Breastfeeding Association.)
3. Solids, from about six months old. (source: The Australian Breastfeeding Association.)
For the next 17 to 20 years (approx.) it needs:
1. A guardian’s love. (Plus food, pocket money, a limited vocabulary, etc.)
Teenagers begin weaning themselves from their dependency on love. They are torn between wanting love and wanting to be independent of it. All the while they have to contend with a changing body, undeveloped brain, sexual needs and new responsibilities, just for starters.
We evolved to have self-worth in our young years (when we need to be demanding), and we evolved to be insecure in the following years (because the tribe benefits from our insecurity). Those two needs are mutually exclusive, and clash in our teenage years.
Despite all the pain, the anguish, the fears . . . some teenagers manage to stay in touch with their self-worth. It’s not over-run by insecurity.
Why is that?
This is a popular excerpt from Margery Williams’s children’s book, ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’:
‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?’
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.’
‘I suppose you are Real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
Just in case you missed the message, it was love which made the Skin Horse real, which gave him substance. And that’s how it is with children.
We need to do more than just feed our kids, keep them safe, and educate them. It’s not enough to tell our kids we love them. They need to actually feel it, just like the Skin Horse needed to feel its owner’s love to become real. And one big way for a kid to feel loved is for its parents to spend time with them. Not watching television together, but actually inter-relating: board games, talking, playing together, doing tasks together . . . Or just listening. (Kids need to feel, at least once a day, that someone is actually paying attention to what they are saying.)
If every day, for just half an hour, a parent were to switch off the television, tablet and phone, and ignore all other distractions while giving their child undivided attention, their child’s feeling of wellbeing, and behaviour, will improve markedly. (Even if the child already behaves well.) That’s because the child gets to feel ‘real’. ‘
Beware the unloved, because they will eventually hurt themselves. Or me.’
Actor Jim Carrey.
I suspect it’s the ones made ‘real’ who retain their self-worth into adulthood.
From twenty years of age onwards: we don’t need the love we needed in those first twenty years. We are weaned.
‘A mother is not a person to lean on but a person to make leaning unnecessary.’
Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
However, many of us still believe that we need love to be happy, for the following reasons:
(i) We are used to the idea. If we need love for twenty years it’s easy to assume we need it always.
(ii) Popular culture insists that we need love. Love is paramount in romance novels, Hollywood movies, songs, advertisements, religions, self-help books . . . Yes, it is a special feeling to have a child, partner, or pet cuddle up to us and look at us adoringly. Most of us know those loving moments, but those warm and fuzzy moments provide the other kind of happiness, temporary happiness; they do not contribute to core happiness. (It might seem like they do because we tend to use those moments to gauge our happiness.)
(iii) We enjoy being loved so much that it is easy to overestimate its importance.
The trouble is, the people who believe we need love to be happy feel diminished when they aren’t loved. They might become desperate for love, and needy. They might even put up with bad relationships in their pursuit of love. When we believe that to be happy we must be loved, we make ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable.
‘Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.’
If instead we focused on feeling valued, we can view love with a healthier perspective. Being loved is a great way to feel valued, but it’s not the only way. Eating in a five-star restaurant is a fabulous way to satisfy our hunger and get the nutrients we need to live, but it’s not the only way – we can satisfy those needs by eating sandwiches. In the same way, if we can feel valued the five-star way, by being loved, fantastic! But there are other less glamorous ways to feel valued just as effective.
An example? An old man loses his spouse and there is no-one left to love him. Of course he is unhappy; he is grieving. But if he feels valued in other ways: by his community, his colleagues, his friends . . . he will still satisfy his deep need to belong. And that’s what we would want.
(It is possible to have someone grieving, yet consider their life to be a happy one.)
There are many ways to feel valued. If we find ways to feel valued without relying solely on love, we will develop a deep and satisfying self-sufficiency, so that when we are loved we will have a steadier, healthier relationship.
That said, when you find love, go ahead and enjoy it! Feel valued the five-star way!
Q. ‘Mark, receiving love is a must. I’ve been in a relationship for two years and I have not been happier.’
Yes, your brain is flooded with oxytocin. At some stage that will stop.
Q. ‘I guess the more we feel valued, the happier we will be?’
For core happiness, no. It’s like the sandwich example: once you satisfy your need you can’t keep satisfying it. However, we can increase our temporary happiness significantly by feeling valued in certain ways. Being in love, for example, can be glorious with all that oxytocin.
‘So, someone who feels loved has no more core happiness than someone simply appreciated?’
Correct. It seems counter-intuitive because when we confuse oxytocin highs with core happiness.
Q. ‘I know people who would be devastated if they weren’t loved.’
Yes, some people have either talked themselves into a dependency, or don’t feel valued in other ways. Either way, they have a problem, because if they rely on being loved to feel valued they might put up with a lousy relationship.
Let’s summarise the points before we come to a heartening revelation:
(1) After the age of twenty we don’t need love. It’s great to have, and it can satisfy our innate need to feel valued, but there are other ways to satisfy that need.
(2) Our sense of self-worth, that sense of feeling worthy of love , of feeling loveable is enough to satisfy our need to feel valued.
(3) Our sense of self-worth is innate. We evolved it to get us through our formative years. That means: it’s part of our being.
(4) Some of us manage to stay in touch with our self-worth, and others don’t.
It’s this: I am not saying, ‘Some of us lose our self-worth’. I’m suggesting that we all still have it, because it’s innate, but some of us lose touch with it.
Our self-worth is part of our being. Within each and every one of us is a sense of self-worth, no matter how worthless we might actually feel. After all, it evolved within us, like our emotions and like our sex drive. We don’t lose our sex drive when we can no longer reproduce. Innate needs don’t simply go away. They are hard-wired into us. Innate needs are with us for always.
Yes, they can become dormant when other innate needs overwhelm them. Self-worth is eroded by insecurity as a child grows older, but it’s not eradicated. It’s still there! We can lose touch with it but it’s still there.
And we can reignite it.
‘We don’t need to establish our self-worth; we need to accept it.’
David G. Meyers
For those of us with a dormant self-worth, how can we reignite it? First, let’s take another look at ‘feeling loveable’.